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CHURCHES IN MINNESOTA TOWN UP IN ARMS OVER LICENSE FEE

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Today, it's a business tax on churches. And tomorrow, who knows?

In Stillwater, the Ministerial Association is wondering what's next, after the City Council decided earlier this year to require churches, among others, to obtain $25 business licenses."That license fee smacks of a tax," said Walt Flesner, minister at First Methodist Church. "Churches aren't supposed to be taxed."

The controversy over the licensing came to light last week, when it was revealed by the Ministerial Association that only one of the city's 14 churches had paid the $25 fee and obtained a license. And that was inadvertent, done by the business staff of a church without the knowledge of the pastors.

The city has opened Pandora's box, says Ruth Beck, minister at St. Peter's United Church of Christ.

"It's just another form of tax, and I think a rather blatant one," she said. "I don't mind that (tax) issue being addressed, but not by the local yokels. It ought to be done on the federal level."

City Council member Jay Kimble accused the ministers of overreacting.

"The City Council's intent was to license a wide range of businesses," he said, "including public institutions, mostly for the purpose of collecting information about their buildings and premises."

Kimble sees a public safety benefit in all of this.

"In case of a church fire," he said, "we'll know the layout of the building. That should make it easier to fight the fire and maybe save the church and the artifacts." The license fee is intended to cover the city's cost associated with collecting and tabulating that sort of information.

But the ministers said the information can be obtained without licensing.

Kimble said the city's big mistake was in choice of words. "We shouldn't have called it a business license," he said. "We should have called it a `public accommodations safety certificate.' "

Flesner said it's just another way for the city to "control the life of the church."

"Some cities already have restricted the hours when churches can conduct worship services and play carillons," he said. "I even heard of a city that cracked down on a church for playing the organ too loud."

Flesner said enough is enough.

"This business license is step one," he said. "It's like gun control. The NRA asks, if this is step one, what's step two? Is the next step even less separation of church and state?"

But the city officials are assuming they are on safe legal ground.

"The city is very mindful of First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion," city administrator Nile Kriesel said. "But courts have never held that someone's religious beliefs excuse them from compliance with an otherwise valid law regulating conduct that the state is free to regulate."

Stillwater's ordinance also is ruffling the feathers of more than the clergy.

One out of four of the city's businesses have balked over obtaining licenses, Chamber of Commerce president Shawn Draper said.

The chamber asked the Minnesota attorney general for an opinion. "We want to know if the city can require these licenses," Draper said.